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Gandhian facade

Print edition : Sep 23, 2011

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Anna Hazare's campaign may lead to a new Lokpal Bill, but it has legitimised middle-class vigilantism and other kinds of civil society mobilisation.

NOW that Anna Hazare has declared victory, it is time to take stock of one of the most powerful recent mobilisations of people in India, focussed on influencing policy or lawmaking processes. The victory, however, is largely symbolic. The original demand of the movement, carefully built around Hazare's fast, namely, that the government must withdraw its own Lokpal Bill and instead pass the Jan Lokpal Bill (JLB) drafted by India Against Corruption (IAC) by August 30, fell by the wayside.

Even its greatly diluted version, namely, Parliament must pass a resolution on the three contentious issues identified by Hazare, was not conceded. Under this, Members of Parliament would resolve to enact the Lokpal Bill in Parliament's current session to set up independent ombudsmen at the Centre and in the States; with jurisdiction over all government servants; and including a law requiring all government departments to make citizens' charters that set limits on the time taken to provide public services such as ration cards and driving licences, and punish breaches of the norm.

On August 27, Parliament discussed a highly truncated form of the demand and passed a Sense-of-the-House motion drafted by the Congress' Pranab Mukherjee and Bharatiya Janata Party's Arun Jaitley. It said: This House agrees in principle on the following issues: a) Citizens' charter b) Lower bureaucracy also to be under the Lokpal through appropriate mechanism c) Establishment of a Lokayukta in States. And further resolved to transmit the proceedings to the department-related Standing Committee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations for the Lokpal Bill.

This is not a binding commitment. Nor is there a deadline by which the Standing Committee must write its report and Parliament must pass the Bill. So the motion was a face-saving formula for Team Anna. According to reports, Hazare's core supporters had decided on the morning of August 27 that he would have to end the fast within a day if his health were not to be seriously jeopardised.

At any rate, the balance of forces had shifted over the preceding few days, with the government calling an all-party meeting, appointing Pranab Mukherjee as chief negotiator, MPs across parties defending Parliament's legislative supremacy, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh talking directly to Hazare, and the cracks widening within Hazare's core group. Eventually, Parliament asserted its primacy in lawmaking, but also cast a duty on the government to produce a strong Lokpal law.

Meanwhile, the entire political system was delivered a shock. Segments of it were exposed as dysfunctional. An attempt was made to set up a direct opposition between Parliament and the people. That it succeeded at least to the point of creating total panic and disarray within the government for days should occasion serious introspection.

It is easy to lay the blame for this on the colossal ineptitude of the Congress and the several near-suicidal decisions it took. Having first underrated both the middle-class support for and the amazing degree of organisation and media management by the IAC campaign in April, Congress leaders panicked and took the extraordinarily ill-advised step of establishing a joint drafting committee with Team Anna, giving it the same representation as the government instead of a broad-based committee with diverse political and non-governmental organisation representation (NGO).

This laid the basis for Team Anna's claim that it represents the people in a unique way, in contraposition to government which easily morphed after the Ramlila Maidan spectacle into the assertion that it alone represents the people. Soon, Arvind Kejriwal would say that Parliament may be supreme in lawmaking, but the people come first; Parliament must listen to Us the People. Kiran Bedi would famously equate Anna with India. Democracy thus collapsed into majoritarianism with all its arrogance and intolerance.

Instead of fielding political veterans and skilled crisis managers, the Congress got a bunch of lawyers to negotiate the Lokpal Bill, whose technical approach messed things up. Meanwhile, Congress spokespersons abused Hazare's team as armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists... funded by invisible donors (with foreign links), and alienated people further.

Even more inept was the decision to arrest Hazare pre-emptively on August 16 and lodge him in Tihar jail, in gross underestimation of public sympathy for his right of protest apparently against official intelligence reports. The mistake was magnified when Hazare was released. He refused to leave Tihar unless he was allowed to fast publicly, thus garnering more sympathy.

It is simply incomprehensible that the Congress did not depute Maharashtra leaders such as Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde or even Prithviraj Chavan earlier to talk to Hazare bypassing his hard-line supporters, and that it did not convene an all-party meeting until August 24.

Yet, a far deeper failure is involved here, in understanding the depth of genuine popular or grass-roots revulsion against corruption, in two senses. The first is corruption that ordinary people suffer in day-to-day life when they have to pay bribes just to survive or to realise a right, that of getting their entitlements, such as ration cards or freedom from police harassment.

The second is corruption in the larger sense, including plunder of public money by powerful interests through manipulation of policies and fiddling of contracts, irresponsible and unaccountable governance, and abuse of power, itself distributed in a skewed and iniquitous manner in this extremely unequal society. Both forms are related to the social and governance system, and the unequal access to privilege and power centres inherent in it. When the poor protest against corruption, they often protest against the system.

By contrast, the upper-middle-class elite or the 10-15 per cent upper crust of society does not suffer the first form of corruption, certainly not to a degree remotely comparable to the poor. And it is often the beneficiary of the second kind. Its resentment arises, if it is genuine at all, from having to pay bribes to obtain a privilege, like admission to a top-rated school or jumping the queue to get a reserved train seat.

Deep distrust

Middle-class anger is directed not at the system or the real wielders of power in the corporate world and government but at soft targets such as MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats. It is easy to single out politicians because they are typically portrayed by the media, including popular films, television channels and newspapers, as arch-villains irredeemably corrupt, and venal and crooked by choice, just as business tycoons are glorified as wealth creators who contribute to social welfare. Underlying this is a deep distrust of representative democracy and mass politics. Our hierarchy-obsessed, casteist middle class cannot possibly accept political equality between itself and the unwashed masses.

Focussing on corruption offers a nice escape from this society's myriad problems, including mass poverty and deprivation, stunted growth of our children, pervasive lack of social opportunity, economic servitude and social bondage, absence of social cohesion, rising income and regional inequalities, and the impossibility for millions of people to realise their elementary potential as human beings, not to speak of communalism, patriarchy, growing militarism and decreasing human security. Corruption here performs the role that population growth did a few decades ago. Then, the elite blamed all of India's problems on the poor breeding like rabbits.

Originally, Hazare's movement spoke narrowly to this middle class, reducing the issue of corruption to paying bribes to government officials. The campaign in April was Facebook- and Twitter-driven. It mobilised upper-middle-class people in big cities through the technology of returning free missed calls. A telecom company provided the technology, and somebody paid for the calls answered (13 million by August 15, says the IAC website).

Support for the movement snowballed after Hazare's wrongful arrest-release. Multiple scripts got written into it as peasants, trade union workers, dabbawalas and other poor people joined the protest. But that did not transform the campaign's quintessentially upper-middle-class character or its vigilantism. Meanwhile, its leaders mistook general support for the anti-corruption cause as informed agreement with the JLB. They built a dangerous cult of personality around Hazare as a demi-god, on whose command people were ready to fast unto death. The government deferred to Hazare's campaign, as it always does to movements with an elite character. There were many continuities between the campaign, motivated by hatred of all politicians, and recent agitations against affirmative action, driven by hatred of the low castes. That is one reason why Dalits, low-caste Hindus, and large numbers of Muslims are cold towards Anna's movement or oppose it.

The campaign uses a strongly chauvinist Vande Mataram Bharat-Mata-ki-Jai-type idiom, based on an unthinking, conformist nationalism and illiberal and conservative ideas, including hero worship and absolute obedience. This fits in with the involvement of Hindutva forces in the campaign, frankly admitted by Sushma Swaraj in Parliament on August 17, confirmed by BJP president Nitin Gadkari's letter supporting Hazare, and reinforced by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak-ideologue K.N. Govindacharya's August 26 statement confirming significant RSS presence at Ramlila Maidan.

The Hazare movement's legitimisation in media and society creates an unhealthy precedent. Other intolerant movements can create a lynch-mob mentality and demand death to the traitors or the building of a temple at Ayodhya because the People want it. That is positively dangerous.

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